Amitai Etzioni

       America’s moral and social fabric is weakening. Too often we demand rights without

assuming responsibilities, pursue entitlements while shying away from obligations. More

broadly, as the increase in antisocial behavior over the last decades indicates, we have lost our

commitment to values we all share and next to no new ones have arisen to replace those that

were lost.

       We should not treat violence, drug abuse, illegitimacy, promiscuity, abusive attitudes

towards people of different backgrounds, alcoholism, poor academic performance, and other

social maladies as isolated phenomena. They reflect several social factors but key among them is

weakness of character, the inability to resist temptation and adhere to pro-social values.

       Communitarians maintain that values do not fly on their own wings. To shore up our

moral foundations attention must be paid to the social institutions that undergird our values.

These include the family, schools, the community (including voluntary associations and places of

worship) and society (as a community of communities).

       The focus here is on one institution, the school. Given that roughly 88 percent of students

still attend public schools, they are what this examination deals with. It is assumed that even if

families– whose societal task is to introduce children to moral values and lay the foundation of

their characters– work perfectly, schools are still needed to round off the task. Given the burden

and challenges parents face, they are rarely able to perform their job in full and hence even more

responsibility falls on schools. It follows that schools should make the development of good

character one of their primary responsibilities.
       Those who consider such a mission obviously at the center of education should note that

for quite a few years, and most recently, there has been growing pressure to dedicate ever more

resources, energy, and time to teaching ever younger children academics. Newly introduced tests,

which are all on academic subjects, and drives to teach preschool children to read, all add to the

neglect of attention to character education in public schools.


Here are the high points:

  1.   Values education is a crucial part of public education. It should be fostered in schools.

       There cannot be a value-free or value-neutral education. Schools must supplement the

       moral education provided at home – especially when homes are not intact.

  2.   Character building is at the root of upholding values. Without character education, merely

       knowing what is right is no assurance that we will do it and incorporate these values into

       our lives. Critical to developing character are two capabilities of self-discipline and

       empathy. Self-discipline is required because without it individuals cannot control their

       impulses and will grow up to be uncivil, unethical, and ineffectual. External controls are

       needed up to a point but if extended beyond that point, they undermine the cultivation of

       self-discipline. Empathy, the capacity to walk in another person’s shoes, is also essential.

       It is at the foundation of many values and without it those who are self-disciplined might

       commit themselves to nefarious purposes.

  3.   Character education should imbue the full range of school experiences– the human

       curriculum as well as the academic curriculum. It should not be limited to classes on

       civics, nor is it only a matter of curriculum content. The way sports are conducted, grades
       are allotted, teachers behave, and corridors and parking lots are monitored all import

       moral messages and significantly affect character development.

The preceding deliberations inform the following specific comments.

        Extracurricular activities, and especially sports, should not be considered extra, but a

vital part of education. We must strive to develop stronger ties between these activities and

character development. Sports is important not merely for a healthy body and as a substitute for

street activities, but also a way to learn to play by the rules, bond, develop camaraderie, and

much more.

        The ways schools deal with minor infractions is of special significance for character

education. Schools that ignore petty violence, gross disorder in the corridors, cafeteria and

parking areas, disrespect for the teacher and the facilities, are undermining character education.

The same holds for schools that hand out rewards (especially grades) too easily, provide

automatic promotion and graduation, and allot rewards on the basis of nonachievement- based

considerations. Peer mentoring of students, and patrols of shared spaces, guided by professionals

is a promising way to enhance character education.

        Schools should teach those values shared by the community, virtues such as veracity and

treating others with dignity. The teaching of values particularly dear to the heart of sub-groups

should be reserved for religious and other private schools. The suggestion that there are only few

such values or that shared commitment to them holds only as long as they remain highly abstract,

is not in line with the facts.

        A public school should teach about the social role and historical significance of religion

but not advocate a particular religion. One ought to support efforts, such as those of the

Williamsburg Charter, to find common ground on religious issues that divide us and to find
space in schools to discuss these issues.

        “Value free” sex education is unacceptable. At the same time, teaching family values

without information about ways to prevent transmission of disease and unwanted pregnancies is

dangerous. We need education for interpersonal relations, family life, and intimacy that provides

a normative context for sex education as well as sharing age-appropriate specific information on

the subject. Students should learn about the value of delaying sexual involvement, the merits of

abstinence, while receiving contraception information to protect them and others if they do

become sexually active. Properly combined the second message need not cancel out the first one.

Schools within Communities

       Schools are often expected to correct for many of society's ills but the opposite must be

considered. Schools need all the external help that can be marshaled to discharge their duties.

Parents and other community members and institutions should be treated and see themselves as

partners rather than as outsiders.

       Parents should be deeply involved in all aspects of formulating and implementing school

policies, curricula, discipline, community service, and above all, values issues. While teachers’

and other educators’ professional knowledge should be heeded, on matters of character the voice

of parents and communities should take precedence, within constitutional limits as long as the

policies favored do not pose a danger to life and limb. (For example, a school may well favor

turning the school into a gun-free zone and oppose a community that favors allowing students to

carry concealed weapons.)

        One should support community schools and schools that also serve as community

centers. Schools should gradually shift to remain open more months a year, longer hours, and
even during weekends. This cannot be done overnight, but the farmers’ calendar is no longer


          Community service, when properly conducted, can be an effective means of developing

civic commitments and skills by doing rather than by merely studying. Although community

service should be the practicum for civics, imposing it on students defeats the purpose of

developing the taste for volunteerism.

          Greater integration must be achieved between work and schooling. Educators need to

search for ways to connect schooling with activities that make sense to young people. Many

businesses that employ high school students part-time ought to recognize that they are educators

as well. These early work experiences will either reinforce responsible habits and attitudes, or

will serve as lessons in poor civics and deficient work ethics. Corporations and small businesses

should work with schools to better structure employment opportunities for adolescents so that

they build character and prepare them for their futures.

          Schools should be viewed as nascent communities. Students and teachers should have the

same basic goals; they should be discouraged from approaching one another in an adversarial or

legalistic fashion. Although the basic rights of students must be respected fully, maintaining

civility in schools should not require full court hearings and the cross-examination of witnesses

when disciplining students. Simplified hearings, limited appeals, mediating, and similar

measures are more appropriate for a school setting. We prefer that disruptive students receive

more education rather than banishment. However, when these measures fail, schools should not

be unduly hampered in removing those who destroy the learning environment.

Diversity within Unity
         Enhanced diversity in the curricula and in the composition of the school enriches us, but

also exposes us to the dangers of tribalism. Diversity should be advanced, but within the context

of unity. We are richer if we learn about other cultures and traditions and develop more respect

for others. But we must share certain basics, and above all, the superior value of the democratic

form of government, the importance of the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and the tolerance

of one another. Educators should be mindful of the theme implied in the saying, “We all came on

different ships but now we ride in the same boat.”

         No class should teach hate against another group. We all have troubling parts in our

respective histories. We need to learn reconciliation without forgetting the lessons of the past,

lest we shall repeat them.

         Teaching new immigrant children in their native languages for a limited time may ease

their transition, but we should avoid prolonged separation of education along ethnic or racial



         Character development entails acquiring the capacity to control one's impulses and to

mobilize oneself for acts other than the satisfaction of one's self. Workers need such self-control

so that they can stick to their tasks rather than saunter into work late and turn out slapdash

product – so that they are able to observe a work routine that is often not very satisfying by itself.

Citizens and community members need self-control so that they will not demand ever more

services and handouts while being unwilling to pay taxes and make contributions to the

commons. And self-control makes people more tolerant of others who are from different ethnic,

racial, and political backgrounds. This tolerance is at the foundation of democratic societies.
       Newborns have almost no capacity for impulse control or mobilization to tasks that

require deferment of gratification; they are preoccupied with their immediate needs and desires.

Education is to channel some of these drives to "energize" an internal regulator, one that gives

self-direction to the person and is often referred to as character. Education proceeds by tying

gratification to the development of qualities that are socially useful and morally appropriate (a

process psychologists call sublimation). That is, by relating satisfaction to being punctual,

completing a task, and taking other people's feelings into account, by playing by the rules and so

on, one acquires the ability to abide by moral tenets and to live up to one's social responsibilities.

       It is possible to overeducate and to draw too much of the ego's energies into the inner

mechanisms of self-control. This is what is meant by being "uptight"– people who are obsessed

with their careers or achievements and are unable to relax or show affection. Such excessive self-

control has concerned social scientists in the past, especially in the Sixties, and has led to a call

for less character education in favor of more unbounded expression for the ego. Excessive self-

control, however, is uncommon in contemporary America; indeed, many youngsters come to

school with a grossly deficient capacity to guide themselves. The fact that a larger proportion of

the young find it difficult to be punctual, get up in the morning, do homework on their own, and

complete tasks in an orderly and timely fashion are but the most visible indications of a much

deeper deficiency. As a result, schools must engage in character education. This is where the

various commissions that have studied educational deficits went wrong. By and large, they

argued for loading students with more hours of science, foreign language, math, and other skills

and bodies of knowledge. But you cannot fill a vessel that has yet to be cast. Character formation

is an essential prerequisite– both so that pupils can learn, and so that by the time they graduate

they will command the necessary human qualities to be effective responsible adults.
Discipline, Self-Discipline, and Internalization

       Parents and educators often stress the importance of discipline in character formation and

in the moral education of the new generation of Americans. In several public-opinion surveys,

teachers, school administrators, and parents rank a lack of discipline as the number-one problem

in our schools. They correctly perceive that in a classroom where students are restless, impatient,

disorderly, and disrespectful, where rules and routines cannot be developed and maintained,

learning is not possible.

       So far, so good. Unfortunately, discipline, as many people understand it, takes on an

authoritarian meaning. A well-disciplined environment is often considered one in which teachers

and principals lay down the law and will brook no talking back from students, who show respect

by rising when the teacher enters the room and speak only when spoken to. Indeed, in quite a few

states physical punishment is still considered an effective way to maintain discipline. I maintain

that if discipline is achieved by authoritarian means, youngsters will behave mainly as long as

they are closely supervised and fear punishment. But as soon as the authorities turn their backs,

they will tend to misbehave and their resentment at being coerced will express itself in some

form of antisocial behavior or another. This is because the discipline is linked to punishment

rather than to a general sense of right and wrong.

       What the pupil – and the future adult – requires is self-discipline, the inner ability to

mobilize and commit to a task he or she believes in and to feel positive – that is, self-rewarded –

for having done so. This quality is developed when the voice of authority is internalized and

becomes part of the person's inner self, his ego. Internalization occurs in structured

environments, but not under authoritarian conditions. What is not needed is close, continuous

external supervision (and certainly not the kind of punitive environment that comes to mind
when we think about military academies). Rather, what is required is a school structure made up

of authority figures, rules, and organization of tasks that motivate students by providing clear

guidelines. These must be both firmly upheld and be reasonable and justified, so that students can

understand the need to abide by them.

       Educational requirements, in turn, must be clearly stated, and the link between

requirements and goals must be fully explained. Curricula should be neither arbitrary nor subject

to the whim of an individual teacher. To foster self-discipline, assignments must be "do-able,"

appropriately checked, and properly rewarded. When they are excessive and mechanical (such as

the time one of my sons was required in high school to memorize the names of all the Indian

tribes that resided in America), or when rewards are allocated according to irrelevant criteria

(such as teacher favoritism, minority status, or undue parental influence), requirements become

dictates and not sources of involvement and ways to internalize commitments, to build self-


Character and Moral Education

       While character formation lays the psychic foundation both for the ability to mobilize to a

task and to behave morally (by being able to control impulses and defer gratification), it is

contentless: it does not educate one to a specific set of virtues or values. It provides the rectitude

needed to tell the truth even if the consequences are unpleasant, but it does not teach the value of

being truthful. It enables a person to refrain from imposing his sexual impulse on an unwilling

partner, but it does not teach him that it is morally unacceptable to rape. Developing character

without attention to value education is like trying to develop the muscles of an athlete without

having a particular sport in mind. This statement inevitably raises the question: Whose values?
       The challenge "Whose values will you teach?" can be readily answered by starting with

the many values that we all share. (Many of these are shared not only in one community or by

Americans, but much more widely.) Nobody considers it moral to abuse children, rape, steal,

commit murder, be disrespectful of others, discriminate, and so on and on. Some values, a small

subset of the total in well-functioning communities, that are contested. These exceptions can be

dealt with either by letting the students learn about both sides of the issue or by openly omitting

them. Moreover, these issues are helpful in showing the pain of moral conflicts and the merit of

genuine consensus-building, a consensus we do have on most values. Sure, say the opponents,

but people agree only on vague generalities, which almost amount to banalities. They argue:

When you come down to specifics, disagreements will dominate, and then whose specifics will

you teach?

       In response I note that first of all, we would be way ahead if we could get one and all to

truly subscribe to all these values and only argue with one another over the specific applications.

Second, even here when it comes to specifics, there is more consensus than at first seems to be

the case. Professor William Damon points to the following conducts that deserve our attention

       A counselor is calling a student's home about apparently excused absences, only
       to find that the parent's letters have been forged. A young boy is in the principal's
       office for threatening his teacher with a knife. Three students are separated from
       their class after hurling racial epithets at a fourth. A girl is complaining that her
       locker has been broken into and all her belongings stolen. A small group of boys
       are huddling in a corner, shielding an exchange of money for drug packets. In the
       playground, two girls grab a third and punch her in the stomach for flirting with
       the wrong boy.

       Using these and other such behaviors as education opportunities is sure to keep teachers

busy for years to come. This suggest that we have to attend to other sources of these behaviors–

for instance, by rebuilding community within the adult world, which these children often

       One need not worry that educators will brainwash students who are captive audiences in

their classrooms and make them accept their moral viewpoints. Students are exposed to a large

variety of voices, coming to them from television, magazines, porn shops, peers, and many

others. That is, there are natural checks and balances built into the social environment. If

somewhere one teacher were to advance a moral concept that was outside the community

consensus, say, that we must all become vegetarians, pacifists, or Zen Buddhists, the students

would have plenty of other sources to draw on to counter such teaching. Indeed, the opposite is

true: if typical educators, whose values tend to be well within the community range, refrain from

adding their moral voice to the cacophony of voices the students are exposed to anyhow, the

students would miss one perspective– and remain exposed only to all the other voices, many of

which are less committed to values the community holds dear.

The Import of Experiences

       How does one teach moral values, as opposed to merely building up the capacity for

moral reasoning and disputations? How does one build up moral commitments? There is one

way that far surpasses all others: experiences are more effective teachers than lectures and

textbooks, although their narrative is also valuable. This is particularly evident in extracurricular

activities, especially sports. True, these can be abused, such as when coaches focus on winning as

the only object, and neglect to instill learning to play by the rules, teamwork, and camaraderie.

Graduates of such activities will tend to be people who are aggressive, maladjusted members of

the community. However, if coaches, and the messages they impart, are well integrated into the

values education of a school, and if parents see the importance of using sports to educate rather
than to win, sports can be a most effective way to enhance values education.

       Why do extracurricular activities command extraordinary power? Because they generate

experiences that are effective educational tools. Thus, if one team plays as a bunch of individuals

and loses because its adversary played as a well-functioning team, the losing players learn– in a

way that no pep talk or slide show could teach them– the merit of playing as a team.

       The same holds for other activities that take place at school. They provide experiences

that tend to have deep educational effects, either positive or negative. Thus, the first step toward

enhancing the moral educational role of schools is to increase the awareness and analysis of the

school as a set of experiences. Schools should be seen not as a collection of teachers, pupils,

classrooms, and curricula. Instead, we need to include the parking lots: Are they places in which

wild driving takes place and school authorities are not in sight, or places where one learns respect

for others' safety, regulated either by faculty or fellow students? Are the cafeterias places where

students belt each other with food and the noise is overwhelming, or civilized places where

students have meaningful conversations over lunch? Are the corridors areas where muscles and

stature are required if one is to avoid being pushed aside by bullies, or are they safe conduits

patrolled by faculty or students? Does vandalism go unpunished, are drugs sold openly, and are

pupils rewarded or punished according to criteria other than achievement (perhaps because they

avoid confrontation, obey without question, or come from affluent or otherwise socially preferred

backgrounds)? Or is vandalism held in check (and when it does occur, the damage is corrected by

the offending students), drug sales swiftly and severely dealt with, and students treated under

rational and general criteria?

       A powerful example of how one may generate experiences in a classroom is found in

Iowa. It is a well know case in point but one that deserves to be recalled. In 1968, Jane Elliott, a
third-grade teacher, concluded that instead of talking about the plight of black Americans shortly

after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., she would teach her third-graders about

discrimination by affecting their experiences.

       Elliott divided her class into two groups by eye color--the blue and brown-eyed. "Today,"

she said one Friday, "the blue-eyed people will be on the bottom and the brown-eyed people on

the top." Elliott continued: "What I mean is that brown-eyed people are better than blue-eyed

people. They are cleaner than blue-eyed people. They are more civilized than blue-eyed people.

And they are smarter than blue-eyed people."

       The experiment's effects were swift and severe. "Long before noon, I was sick," Elliott

recalls. "I wished I had never started it.... By the lunch hour, there was no need to think before

identifying a child as blue- or brown-eyed. I could tell simply by looking at them. The brown-

eyed children were happy, alert, having the times of their lives....The blue-eyed children were

miserable." The children had learned through experience what discrimination is like.

       The children were deeply affected by the exercise. Brown-eyed Debbie Anderson said: "I

felt mad [on blue-eye-preferred Monday]...I felt dirty. And I did not feel as smart as I did on

Friday." Student Theodore Perzynski wrote: "I do not like discrimination. It makes me sad. I

would not like to be angry all my life."

       A mother of one of Elliott's students told:

       I want you to know that you've made a tremendous difference in our lives since
       your Discrimination Day exercise. My mother-in-law stays with us a lot, and she
       frequently uses the word "nigger." The very first time she did it after your lesson,
       my daughter went up to her and said, "Grandma, we don't use that word in our
       house, and if you're going to say it, I'm going to leave until you go home." We
       were delighted. I've been wanting to say that to her for a long, long time. And it
       worked, too. She's stopped saying it.

       Such an experience leaves a strong and lasting impression. In 1984, Jane Elliott's class
had a reunion. Former student, Susan Rolland reported: "I still find myself sometimes, when I see

some blacks together and I see how they act, I think, well, that's black.... And then later--as I said,

I won't even finish the thought before I remember back when I was in that position." Verla Buls

added: "We was [sic] at a softball game a couple of weekends ago, and there was this black guy I

know. We said, 'Hi,' and we hugged each other, and some people really looked, just like, 'What

are you doing with him?' And you just get this burning feeling in you. You just want to let it out

and put them through what we went through to find out they're not any different." Other students

reported that their career choices were influenced by the discrimination experience. Several chose

as a result to join the Peace Corps or work with other cultures overseas.

Less Rotation, More Bonding

       For teachers to be more than purveyors of information and skills, for them to be able to

educate, to build character, they must be able to bond more closely with students than they do

now in many schools. Such bonding may be encouraged by arranging for less rotation of classes

and pupils. Many American high schools were reorganized as if a powerful sociological engineer

was intent on minimizing the bonds between students and teachers, and seeking to ensure that

whatever peer bonds formed would not be classroom-based. These effects stem from the fact that

students are reshuffled each time the bell rings, every 45 minutes or so, while the various subject

teachers stay put. Students, especially in larger schools, rarely develop bonds as members of a

class group, because the class members they related to in one period are different from the ones

they see in the next one. Because of this, peer groups, which often hold sway over members,

especially in moral matters, are not classroom-based and are formed for other reasons, often

irrelevant to education. The peer groups are likely to be formed around other occasions and
values, whether it is racing cars or rock music. This makes it rather difficult for teachers to draw

upon these peer bonds and challenge them to support moral education. Peer groups don't

necessarily have to oppose community and educational values. But sociological studies show that

they often do, and they rarely are mobilized by educators on the side of moral education in the

typical high-rotation schools.

       Another result is that teachers cannot form bonds with their students, because they hardly

have an opportunity to know them. Teachers are typically responsible for a subject, and not for a

class– not for a given group of pupils, for example, all those in the 11th grade, section five. Thus,

the highly specialized school organization is, in effect, a systematic hindrance to bonding with

educators, which is an essential prerequisite for moral education.

       High schools should be reorganized to facilitate experience-based moral education.

Teachers should be in charge of a particular class, teaching the same group of youngsters, say,

three subjects (especially those rich in value content such as history and literature), or two

subjects and civics. The same teacher would also be the class's home room teacher, explicitly in

charge of disciplinary matters. Discipline should be sought not as if the teacher were a punitive

police officer but a faculty member whose task it is to use instances of improper conduct to

enhance moral education. Schools might also institute a policy whereby such teachers would

follow the same students from ninth through 12th grades.

       Such changes, in turn, would necessitate changes in the ways the teachers themselves are

trained, to make them less specialized. Many teachers, especially those who teach humanities or

liberal arts, are already broadly grouped. In any event, without more bonding and contacts that

are more encompassing, extensive, and value-laden, moral education is unlikely to succeed.

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